Saint Louis University

By Marie Dilg

SLU Flu Fighters
Flu Fighters Hieu Do and Jessica Bjorklund teach first graders how to keep their germs to themselves. (Photo by Steve Dolan)

The medical students were playing to a tough crowd.

The first graders at Bel-Nor Elementary just came in from recess and were not ready to settle down. Getting the 6- and 7-year-olds to sit on the colorful alphabet rug took a little wrangling. Before one more student could get up and ask for another drink of water, med student Jessica Bjorklund jumped in.

"Does anyone know what the flu is?" she asked.

A few hands go up.

"Does anyone know what happens when you get the flu?"

More hands go up, and the war stories start flying. The most "ewws" go to the girl who threw up on her brother.

Then Bjorklund and the other SLU students get to the real reason for their visit today: helping the children protect themselves from the virus.

Kung Flu Fighters

Bjorklund is co-founder of a student-led community education project called the SLU Flu Fighters. The fighters are members of the Infectious Disease Interest Group (IDIG) created by medical students who share an interest in communicable diseases.

As part of their service mission, the Flu Fighters travel to area schools with an interactive flu prevention program they developed.

They teach elementary students how to prevent the spread of flu by sneezing and coughing into their elbows and then practice the "chicken wing sneeze" with the class. They demonstrate how quickly the flu can spread by covering the hands of two students with lotion and glitter. Those two students "high five" other students who, in turn, share their pencils with still more students. Within a couple of minutes, the entire class has glittered palms. The program ends with a trip to the bathroom for a lesson on hand washing.

SLU Flu Fighters
Xiaoxi "Jessica" Ouyang teaches students how to properly wash their hands. (Photo by Steve Dolan)

"The challenge for us was breaking our message into bite-size pieces," Bjorklund said. "You spend so much time during your first years of medical school memorizing medical terms that you sometimes forget how to speak in a way that's understandable to others, especially kids. A 6-year-old isn't going to understand contagious."

Hieu Do, another Flu Fighters co-founder, was drawn to the project by the opportunity to teach at any level.

"Working with little kids is good experience," he said. "They're our future patients, and if you can't communicate with your patients, you can't really help them. I also have some interest in academic medicine. I value any chance to learn how to stand in front of a room and teach."

Aman's students were especially receptive to an animated, high-energy music video of kids who were "kung flu fighting" by getting vaccinated, covering their sneezes, washing their hands and staying home to rest if they do get sick.

"Sometimes during the first couple of years of medical school you find yourself wondering why you spend so much time studying. Why are you doing all of this work?" said  fellow Flu Fighter, Xiaoxi "Jessica" Ouyang. "I remember why when we're in the community. I'm reminded of the reasons I decided to become a doctor."

A Passion for Mission and Medicine

The Infectious Diseases Interest Group is one of more than 50 groups developed by SLU students around their common interests. Some groups are specialty based, such as surgery, pediatrics or geriatrics. Others, like IDIG, are theme-based. The School of Medicine has interest groups focused on child abuse prevention, HIV prevention and diversity in medicine.

Most groups are led by second-year students with support from first-year students who assume leadership during their second year. Each group has a faculty adviser.

Participation is voluntary, but nearly all first- and second-year students are engaged with one interest group or another. Some groups honor their mission by hosting informative lectures and luncheons on campus. Others go into the community to educate in schools and agencies.

"We encourage students to become active outside the classroom," said Stuart J. Slavin, M.D., M.Ed., associate dean for curriculum and professor of pediatrics. "It's a way for students to enrich their lives and the lives of others. It's also a great way for them to pursue their passion or find a passion they never knew they had."